The Myth of the PhD Expert

Two of the most common questions I was asked when I completed my PhD was “How do you feel?” or “Do you feel any different?” I mostly answered these questions with “I feel relieved.” This was apparently not the answer most people were expecting. They expected to here things like “I feel so accomplished,” or “I feel so smart.” Truth be told any feelings I had along those lines were far outweighed by the immense feeling of relief I had that the nearly five-year process was finally over. I was ready to move on with my life, to work somewhere a bit more permanently, to make a decent living, and to seriously think about starting a family. The daily struggles of PhD life and indeed the daily lives of what we generally refer to as experts, are often obscured in this myth of what an expert is.

When people think of experts, they generally think that they are people that have all the answers, and that they sail through life on a cloud of immense knowledge. And while yes, experts are usually much more knowledgeable about certain topics than the general public, they are still normal people, with normal problems, and their immense knowledge in one area does not often dominate their lives.

If you are thinking about getting a PhD, you may have this image of an expert and believe that getting a PhD will somehow change you and your life. While a PhD will change some things, who you are, and your everyday life are unlikely to be altered that much. In this post I want to break down some of the myths around experts and the way they are perceived and give a bit of a real-life account of what it is like to get a PhD.

This post was written by a recent PhD graduate (it is anonymous to keep the discussion frank) on behalf of Dave Maslach. This is part of the R3ciprocity project (Check out the YouTube Channel or the writing feedback software). R3ciprocity helps students, faculty, and research folk by providing a real and authentic look into doing research. It provides solutions and hope to researchers around the world. For more on this topic and to see what Dave has to say about the myth of the expert:

Who are experts?

I define experts in this situation as people who are generally at the top of their field or have obtained a terminal degree. They are people who accumulated a large amount of knowledge in a certain area through education and experience. Generally, people are considered experts in an area if they have a terminal degree such as a PhD, an MD, or a law degree. Experts do not necessarily need to have a terminal degree; they can also be people who have spent many years working in a certain area and through that time and experience rose to the top of their field.

Someone can be an expert in just about anything, but generally those recognized as experts by society are people who work in universities, government offices, or are in the top position of their field (a CEO of a fortune 500 company for instance would be considered an expert in business). I could claim to be an expert in something like Disney movies, but unless I won a bunch of trivia contests or somehow displayed my knowledge to the world, and was recognized by Disney likely no one would really recognize me as having any type of qualification. Generally, then, experts are people who have studied and contributed to their field in some type of meaningful way that has been recognized by others in their field.

How does society perceive experts?

Society perceives experts in an abstract way. They are their knowledge rather than just people. Experts, particularly well know experts, are often revered (or sometimes reviled) as an embodiment of their field. They are often not really considered people, rather more like walking fonts of knowledge that have a higher status in society and are somehow different from the rest of the population. People don’t often think of an expert as an everyday person. If you think of a well-known expert, someone like Stephen Hawking or Bill Gates, most people don’t think about their home lives, and what they do everyday, rather they identify them immediately with their contributions to science and technology.

There is this perception that because someone is an expert then they must be super intelligent and constantly interacting and existing on this higher intellectual plane. This was something I struggled with when I first started attending conferences during my PhD. I would go to a conference and listen to the talk of a big name academic whose research I frequently used and would struggle to go introduce myself to them as I thought I possibly couldn’t come up with anything intelligent enough to make a good impression. They were so smart, and I was just a lowly PhD student, what could I possibly say that would interest them. This, of course, was all exacerbated by impostor syndrome, but my disassociation of these experts as regular people really made it difficult for me to go talk to them. I found over time that most experts are just normal people and are easy to talk to on that level. (For more on conferences and impostor syndrome see these posts.)

What is it really like to be an expert?

I often forget that I am an expert. When I completed my PhD, I was one of 2 or 3 people in the world that could claim the level of knowledge that I have on my PhD topic. That is a pretty exclusive group, however, my expertise is only part of who I am. My research and work are very important to me and I greatly prefer the title Dr. over Mrs. or Ms., but when I am at home, I am a pretty normal person. This is true of every other expert as well.

Yes, experts are often highly intelligent people, and yes they can converse with a high level of intelligence, but they also face the same struggles and daily problems that everyone else does. Experts all go home to their lives and put on their partner, parent, sibling, and friend hats and carry on many of the same activities that they did before they reached their expert status. Experts with children go home and make funny noises and read silly stories to their kids. They care for their parents, call their siblings, and go out with their friends. They do the same hobbies as everyone else. Some people were surprised to learn during my PhD that my partner and I spent time every weekend playing Pokémon Go. Somehow a game capturing imaginary monsters did not jive with what they thought a PhD student should do in their downtime.

Being an expert in something is super neat, and it makes many experts want to go to work everyday, but usually it is not all their lives are about. Experts are also just people like everyone else.

Am I smart enough to be an expert (or get a PhD)?

Because of the myths that surrounds experts, some people when they are embarking on getting a PhD worry that they are not smart enough to be an expert in their field. Since they often view experts as the embodiment of knowledge, they often are scared they will not live up to that because they are not smart enough. However, the answer to this question is a bit of a mixed bag. If you get into a PhD program you are smart. Getting into a PhD program is no small task. It does require high grades and usually a completed master’s degree. There is a certain level of intelligence that is required to get a PhD.

However, as has been explored elsewhere in this blog, good grades are not the only determining factor for completing a PhD. Doing a PhD takes perseverance, fortitude, and an ability to play the long game. PhDs are very long processes and knowing how to get through the PhD process is a skill in and of itself (for more on the PhD process see these posts). PhDs require a lot of hard work and a mind set that does not necessarily have anything to do with being super intelligent. This is also a characteristic shared by experts. They are willing to put in the time, energy, and dedication into their research, the same skills you use to get through your PhD.

Does anything change after getting a PhD?

If experts are still people just like everyone else, then does anything change when you get a PhD? Well this is a yes and a no. Most of the things in you day to day life outside of work will likely continue on as before. You will still have all the same responsibilities as before, but you may have new work opportunities available to you (see this post for more on jobs). There are a few other things that may change as well.

People perceive you differently

Like discussed above there is a certain image of experts in society so you may find that there are changes in how people perceive you. This can be both good and bad. People will likely perceive you as highly intelligent and might be a little intimidated by you (this is something that can go either way on the good and bad scale). Along with this sometimes people see you as very busy with whatever your area of expertise is and “don’t want to bother you.” This is a situation I ran into a few times with friends during my PhD. They always thought I was too busy for things and so I would find out things like a grandparent died or that they were having a health issue later, because they didn’t want to “bother” me. How you handle this is up to you but be aware that even people you know well might perceive you differently during and after the PhD process.

On the flip side, being perceived as an expert can have many positive outcomes. Other professionals (doctors, lawyers, etc.) change the way they interact with you. I’ve noticed a distinct reduction in people talking down to me or simplifying things like medical or legal problems when they find out I have a PhD even though it is nothing related to their field. I have also found that people working in the public sector of my field (history) are often relieved when they interact with me that they don’t have to over explain ideas. I have even been shown extra things on historical tours because they “trust an expert” not to damage delicate historical artifacts. Because there is a general recognition that PhDs and experts are generally intelligent people tend to drop any act and interact with you on a new level.

Know how to research and find answers

Along with this change in status, experts have also spent many years acquiring and honing particular skill sets in research, finding answers, and applying knowledge. This is one of the things that contributes to the mystique of an expert and the impression that they know everything. They don’t, they just know where to find the answers (see this post on the eternal pursuit of knowledge). They spent several years during their PhD learning how to find, interpret, and apply concepts and this a skill that can be transferred to all areas of life.

This is a skill that I found often impresses and sometimes mystifies people. For example, I recently picked up teaching ESL part-time online. I have no previous ESL experience, but I do have teaching and research experience. In a short amount of time I was able to study for and pass a basic TESOL exam because these were skills I used throughout my PhD: read about a topic, interpret the data, and apply it quickly. I was able to use my pre-existing skills to begin building a new area of expertise. Experts often appear to be incredibly knowledgeable about areas other than their own particular area of expertise because of these skills. Once you know how to learn, you can learn just about anything.

Know the right people

In addition to knowing how to research and apply knowledge, experts also have a large network of other experts they can call on to help themselves or someone else. PhDs build expertise in a very particular area. Often this area overlaps with but does not completely match other areas of expertise. This means that they draw on the work of and often collaborate with other scholars and experts. Through research, collaboration, conferences, and the general knowledge of their field PhDs often know many people who can answer a variety of questions. So much like knowing how to research PhDs often know who to ask if they do not know the answer to a specific question.

I recently had a moment like this that made a student think I was an expert in my field. She wanted to research a certain topic for her essay but did not know where to start. Through my own research and my own networking, I was able to point her in the direction of certain scholars’ work who could help her. This type of thing is very common when you have a PhD. You may not know the answer yourself, but you definitely know who you could ask to get the answer, or where you could go to get it. This is often not a resource that the general public has.

While some things change with a PhD, and you are constantly growing your knowledge, you will likely find that you don’t feel any different. Having a PhD and being an expert doesn’t suddenly make you all know, and you may feel no different than you were before. Some things will change, but a PhD will not change your whole life.

Want to read a few more blog posts like this? Check out these articles:

  1. 10 Myths of doing your PhD.
  2. Are PhDS overqualified?
  3. Tips for applying to PhD Programs.

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